More and more travelers are using their smartphones to find and book flights and hotels. Travel search app Hipmunk has taken up the challenge to make this task easier, faster, and overall more enjoyable for both business and leisure travelers. With its agony-reducing flight search algorithm and new product designed specifically for business travelers, Hipmunk is now one of the most popular apps in the travel category.
Meet one of the faces behind that hip little chipmunk: Carly Lodge, Hipmunk’s Head of Product Design. We chatted with Carly about career advice, her daily routine as head of the product design team, and Hipmunk’s user-friendly design strategy. Check out what she had to say.
How did you get started working in product design, and what led you to your current role at Hipmunk?
Like many product designers, I started on a very different path. My professional career began as a high school art teacher. Growing up I always had a creative itch to scratch and spent most of my high school and college years holed up in art studios creating a lot of politically motivated conceptual art. I didn’t really know that design was a thing until much later, and certainly knew nothing about UX and Product Design. I thought my options as a creative person were to either be a starving artist or an art teacher. I chose teaching and did that for a few years before deciding to go back to school and study New Media Design at the Academy of Art University here in San Francisco. They sold me on the program by describing it as Graphic Design on steroids and the work on display in the gallery when I toured the school looked cool enough for me to give them all the money that I made waiting tables over the next few years. I eventually graduated with a second BFA. I’m sure a number of family members were rolling their eyes and wondering what I was going to do with two BFAs and a hefty student loan bill, but it led me to a career I absolutely love and never looked back. For the first few years out of design school I work as a UX/UI designer and still didn’t know a ton about product until joining Hipmunk. We were a super small start-up at that point and my interview consisted of sitting down with one of the co-founders, looking at the website and talking through what was working and what wasn’t. I left inspired to solve some really cool problems and work with some of the smartest people I’d ever met. They made me an offer and the rest was history. I matured as a designer as Hipmunk matured as a company, eventually leading to an acquisition by Concur in 2016.
Tell us a little bit about your typical day as Hipmunk’s Head of Product Design. What does your schedule look like?
My time is spent on a mix of people management, design strategy & planning, and providing my team with constructive and actionable design feedback. We are a small team, so I still do some IC work from time to time as well, mostly around gathering insights from our customers and keeping a pulse on our user experience to help inform our future roadmap and long-term strategy.
I generally spend the first hour of the day catching up on emails, staying abreast of current trends in both design and the travel industry. The rest of the day is a mix of 1:1s, a weekly design review, and meetings with cross-functional partners in product and engineering. It’s easy to get overburdened with meetings and feel like I have no time to execute on work, so I’m pretty committed to blocking off time on my calendar for uninterrupted work time as well. I also think that being present and available to my team for impromptu feedback is incredibly important, so when I find my schedule getting overrun with meetings, I reevaluate which ones are necessary and decline the others. My team is my top priority and I believe there is nothing worse than a manager who simply doesn’t have time for you.
Booking flights can be a stressful and overwhelming process for many people. How does Hipmunk’s design help make the experience more user-friendly?
Hipmunk’s top priority has always been the user. We were founded on the premise of “taking the agony” out of travel. In fact, our flight results are sorted by our unique Agony algorithm, which is a combination of price, duration, and number of stops. With the best flight surfaced first it’s easy to see that for many travelers avoiding a six-hour layover may be worth that extra $10. We are also known for the unique visual layout of our flights. Each flight is displayed as a color-coded flight bar on a timeline so that at a glance our customers can get an idea of the time the flight takes off and lands, the flight duration, number stops, and the operating airline. In our hotel product, we are one of the only sites that also surfaces Airbnb properties alongside hotels so our customers can search all their options in one place.
Flight-booking websites are often feature-heavy. Mobile apps have the challenge of squeezing those features onto a much smaller screen. Considering this, what is Hipmunk’s strategy when it comes to creating a smooth booking design?
We focus on getting travelers through their search and booking process as quickly as possible by surfacing the most important and relevant information upfront and uncovering additional information as it is contextually relevant. Too many booking sites throw all available information at a customer in a single screen. This is perhaps a carryover of the long-held misconception that fewer steps is better. It is not always true and had been widely debunked. Information overload results in decision paralysis. You are much better off guiding a user through a seamless experience even if it results in a few extra steps than cramming all available information on a single page. That said, we work hard to reduce unnecessary steps where it makes sense. An example of this is on our mobile dashboard where you can quickly jump into a recent or saved search, bypassing the search form altogether. Customers logged into our business travel experience, Concur Hipmunk, have additional options to link their calendar and jump directly into searches based on the time and date of their upcoming meetings.
Can you tell us about a project at Hipmunk that you are particularly proud of?
Hipmunk was acquired by SAP Concur at the end of 2016 with a strategy to move into the SMB (small and medium-sized business) travel space. It’s a hole in the market that we felt uniquely equipped to fill since Hipmunk has always tried to reduce travel planning agony for frequent travelers.
This shift to business travel, however, required that design team get to know an entirely new set of travelers, quickly. Immediately after acquisition, we hit the ground running to understand the ways in which business travel differs from leisure travel and how we can better serve this new group of travelers. We worked with our parent company, SAP Concur and sister company, TripIt, to share insights, interviewed business travelers, mapped out stakeholder needs and within 12 months post acquisition we had a beta product ready to test. I’m incredibly proud of the hard work my team put in to get this product off the ground quickly while maintaining a high bar for design quality. Fast forward two years and we’ve continued to make additional improvements to provide a seamless experience for our business travelers.
What were some major moments or key decisions in the evolution of Hipmunk’s design so far?
When I joined Hipmunk in 2013 we supported flight and hotel searches on desktop and had just released the first version of our Android and iOS apps. Since then we have built out an entirely new vertical in our apps called “Discover” for travelers who seek inspiration or have flexibility in their travel plans. We have expanded our product offering to include cars and most notably built a product specific for business travelers that offers exclusive discounts and integrates travel plans with Concur Expense and TripIt.
From a visual design and brand perspective, Hipmunk has also evolved over the years. While our flying chipmunk mascot has remained the same, he’s undergone a few subtle facelifts, we’ve refined our color palette and branding, and are beginning to build out a more streamlined and consistent design system.
What can you tell us about Hipmunk’s new focus on the frequent small business traveler sector? How will that affect or alter your product design strategy?
In addition to Hipmunk’s celebrated UX and extensive inventory options, we designed Concur Hipmunk to offer an additional layer of tools that helps travelers find hotels near their meetings, flights that get travelers in on time thanks to calendar integrations, as well as exclusive deals. We also designed built-in integrations to Concur Expense and TripIt Pro, so travelers have a suite of travel tools to support their end-to-end experience.
I found that designing for a frequent business traveler is actually not very different than designing the way we always have; meaning, our mission from the beginning has been to make travel planning less agonizing. This is why our agony sort takes into account more than just lowest price—it’s about getting where you need to go as quickly as possible at the most opportune time. This is how we’ve historically approached design, and moving forward, we’ll continue to build on that focus.
Do you have any predictions on the upcoming changes or trends in mobile design this year?
The rise of automation through AI and Machine Learning is a hot button topic that everyone is trying to tackle, specifically in the form of chatbots and virtual assistants. I think this all boils down to implicitly knowing what a user wants vs asking what a user wants to deliver a simpler yet personalized experience. Of course, all of this comes with concerns around privacy and data rights. Culturally, we are demanding more transparency in how our data is used and as designers we have an ethical responsibility to safeguard against misuse of data and privacy violations. I think it will be interesting to see how companies move in the direction of providing more automated, personal experiences while at the same time increasing transparency around the data they gather.
Can you share some tips for product designers who are just starting out?
Choose roles, particularly early in your career, that provide maximum opportunity for growth. That may mean joining a team of established designers with an amazing mentor you can learn from, or it may mean joining an early stage start-up as the first designer and doing things you don’t yet know how to do. Whatever you choose, look for the opportunity in every challenge. No job is perfect but there is always something to learn. Also, build a support network. Whether it’s to chat about the latest design trends, confide in someone about your deep seeded impostor syndrome (yes, it’s real and we all experience it), or set the foundation for future work together — building relationships with other designers is so incredibly valuable.
What are your favorite blogs, communities, influencers to follow?
I usually start my morning with my daily dose of Sidebar.io articles. I find them to be a good mix of UI/UX trends and best practices, design news, and interesting case studies. Facebook’s Julie Zhuo and IDEO’s Tim Brown are great thought leaders. I’ve been tuning into IDEO’s Creative Confidence series of podcasts lately. They’ve run some really interesting topics around design leadership and building creative communities. Completely unrelated to UX, I have a design crush on Jessica Hische, who produces some of the most beautiful lettering work I’ve ever seen.
Working on a travel app must give you a lot of inspiration to visit new places. What’s your dream travel destination?
I don’t know if I can name a single dream destination. There is so much to see! I spent a year in my 20s backpacking around the world and it was life-changing. I visited 16 countries in 11 months and I’m itching to get back to that place of spontaneous travel. I have three young kids so admittedly it’s a little harder now, but I’m still committed to traveling, living adventurously, and teaching them to appreciate a world of unique and different experiences. Patagonia is high on my list, but until the kids are a bit older we’ve been taking advantage of places in own backyard. We went on an amazing road trip on the Oregon and California coast last summer. The views were breathtaking! It goes to show you don’t always have to go far to experience amazing new places.
Top item on your bucket list: 3,2,1, go!
Galapagos Islands! Rich natural history, exotic animals, pristine beaches — a true testament to the awe-inspiring beauty of our planet!
Thanks for chatting with us, Carly!